Craft Essay: An Insider’s Outsider View of Place In Gravesend by William Boyle

gravesendWhen I started reading William Boyle’s novel Gravesend, I knew I was in for a lesson on writing place. The authentic dialog, along with Boyle’s sparse exposition created a vivid setting. Rather than explain the place, Boyle brings it to life. The reader sees Gravesend, Brooklyn through the characters’ experiences, hears it spoken in their voices, and watches it play out in the actions that they take. Boyle’s depiction of the setting through the character Alessandra is particularly strong. Because Alessandra returns to Gravesend at the start of the novel after being away for several years, the author is able to use her insider/outsider perspective to create a rich, multi-dimensional picture of Gravesend.

When Alessandra comes home from LA for the first time, she immediately notices, “The whole house smelled like dirty sponges” (ch. 2). Boyle often expresses her mixture of love and hate for her Brooklyn neighborhood with sensory experiences. Later in the chapter, Alessandra enjoys a meal with her father and Boyle illustrates her nostalgia for the food.

Pasta with gravy he’d defrosted that afternoon and braciole from her Aunt Cecilia. She’d forgotten how good it was to eat like this. In L. A. it had been all hummus and avocados and smoothies, quick and healthy stuff on the run, and she didn’t miss it. This gravy tasted silky and sweet with a garlicky bite and the parmesan from Pastosa was unlike anything she could get out west. (ch. 2)

This vivid, nostalgic depiction of the food could never have been achieved through the eyes of a character who hadn’t left Gravesend. The braciole and gravy would be business as usual. Good, but not transformative. The author uses Alessandra’s perspective to layer an interesting blend of nostalgia and boredom, love and hate with the concrete details about life in Gravesend.

Boyle expands the reader’s view of Gravesend to the nearby bars as Alessandra grows restless and reflects on her options for going out. “There weren’t many bars in the neighborhood, not that she could remember. A dive called The Wrong Number with graffiti on the sign. And Ralphie’s, a clammy sports bar full of fat cops and smooth Italian boys stinking of cologne. Those were the options back when” (ch. 2).  We only think to quantify or judge things in our neighborhood when entertaining visitors. In Alessandra’s case, she is the visitor and the host, which is why she evaluates the bars in this self-conscious way. Boyle often uses opportunities like these to allow the reader to discover Gravesend while Alessandra re-discovers it. Boyle uses Alessandra’s perspective to give the reader a vivid description of the neighborhood bars that is critical, yet intimate.

In addition to being an intriguing and realistic character, Alessandra is a vehicle for illustrating place. Her intimacy with the sights, sounds, and smells of Gravesend along with the distance she has from them creates a deep, multi-dimensional portrait of a place. Her ambivalence is embodied in all that she sees around her, and her objectivity allows her to communicate with the reader in a way that some of the other characters who have never left Gravesend wouldn’t be able to. Boyle uses this character’s perspective, along with gorgeous writing to bring Gravesend, Brooklyn to life for the reader.

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